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A Third Way
Curtis Freeman’s journey as an ‘Other Baptist’

By Jonathan Goldstein

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Curtis Freeman
Chris Hildreth / Duke University Photography

Standing before his small congregation in Waco, Texas, one Sunday morning in 1985, Curtis Freeman encountered a preacher’s nightmare: he didn’t know what to say.

Although he had spent a lifetime studying Scripture, Freeman was lost. Isaiah 53, the passage he had chosen for that day’s sermon, filled him with doubt.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

Questions that had simmered in his mind for some time finally demanded answers. How could he preach on this Old Testament passage in a way that would deliver the Gospel? How could he be true to the text and still be true to the congregation?

The conservative theology he had embraced in his youth oversimplified connections between Jesus Christ and the Old Testament. Yet the critical model he later adopted seemed unable to read this text as a witness to Jesus.

“That really threw me,” says Freeman, who remembers that day as a turning point in his life. “I didn’t know how to preach this text as a Christian sermon. It really pushed me to reevaluate the theological trajectory I was on. Suddenly, neither of the ways I had learned to interpret Scripture was satisfying.”

On that day, says Freeman—now research professor of theology and director of Duke Divinity School ’s Baptist House of Studies—he managed to plow through the sermon. To be honest, he says, he’s no longer even sure of what he said to that congregation. What he remembers clearly, though, is that he knew he had to find a way to resolve these questions.

So began Freeman’s quest to find another way; a “third way” that is neither liberal nor conservative, neither left nor right. The journey lasted more than 15 years and involved intense research, reflection and intellectual struggle. Eventually, it led him from Texas to Duke, where he now guides others, particularly students involved with Baptist House, through similar issues.

“I had a lot of assistance when I was struggling, especially from [Duke Professor] Stanley Hauerwas,” Freeman says. “Now I feel like it’s my turn to try to help others find their way and negotiate some of these complicated paths.”

Freeman’s life in the church began when he was a child—the oldest of four siblings—in Denton, Texas, a small town about 35 miles north of Fort Worth. His family was Episcopalian, and Freeman came to deeply appreciate that church and its traditions.

“The Episcopal Church gave me a strong grounding in history and love for liturgy,” he says. “That’s something I’ve always carried with me.”

He became a lay reader, and the rector of his family church was sure Freeman would become a priest. In high school, though, Freeman encountered the vibrant youth culture associated with the Baptist Church, and he was taken with the sense of personal discipleship it offered. In the 10th grade, he became a Baptist. The rest of his family eventually followed.

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